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Column: Chiney Ogwumike spends birthday helping those in need

Sparks star Chiney Ogwumike prepares to co-host the “Certified Buckets”  podcast for Uninterrupted on March 9, 2020.
Sparks star Chiney Ogwumike prepares to co-host the “Certified Buckets” podcast for Uninterrupted on March 9.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike celebrated her 28th birthday on Saturday in her downtown Los Angeles apartment.

That wasn’t the original plan, of course, but nothing any of us had planned two weeks ago is the same because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After talking to her family in Texas, she opened her closet and saw the shirt she had been given at Staples Center last month before the memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

“I put it on for the first time since I got it because turning 28 reminded me of Gigi with the No. 2 and Kobe with the No. 8,” Ogwumike said. “I just wanted to celebrate life, so I went up to my roof and posted that I wanted to help 28 people in the spirit of Kobe and Gigi.”

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Ogwumike committed to giving 28 families in need $100 each if they direct messaged her their stories and Venmo information. Instead of going out with her friends on her birthday, Ogwumike sat on her couch and spent most of Saturday scrolling through hundreds of direct messages from her more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram and sent $2,800 to strangers.

“I know $100 is not a lot, but I don’t have a Kevin Love type of contract so I want to do what I can,” Ogwumike said. “I just felt that was the right thing to do instead of spending $2,800 on a Chanel purse, which would be nice. This is what makes my heart feel better during this crazy time.”

Ogwumike has been bracing for “this crazy time” for a number of weeks, hoping her worst fears wouldn’t become a reality. Long before California and other states ordered residents to stay home because of the pandemic, Ogwumike has been cooped up in her apartment with a fully stocked refrigerator and kitchen cabinets.

“When the coronavirus first started being talked about in China, I became aware of it,” Ogwumike said. “WNBA players have a different vantage point than other athletes. My sister, Nneka, was supposed to go play in China, so our family has been monitoring the coronavirus since January and what has been going on there. WNBA players go overseas in the offseason and we play in China and Italy and other parts of the world, so we have to keep up with international news and developments. We’ve been doing this for years so most of us were ahead of the curve when it came to this.”

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Ogwumike wore a mask and gloves on flights since first reading about COVID-19 and bought a stationary bike for her apartment in case of a lockdown. While she prepared for the worst, it’s still hard for her to believe she won’t be able to leave her house to go to a gym or basketball court for at least the next month.

“I don’t know when I’m going to get on a court again,” Ogwumike said. “I know a lot of players are like that. What does the NBA do? What will the WNBA do? Will we even be able to leave the house to go to the gym? What kind of world are we living in a month from now?”

Chiney Ogwumike begins her day with a workout at her physiotherapist’s office on March 9, 2020.
Chiney Ogwumike begins her day with a workout at her physiotherapist’s office on March 9.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to being a WNBA player and vice president of the players’ union, Ogwumike is an NBA analyst on ESPN and co-hosts an NBA podcast with former Lakers guard Nick Young on Uninterrupted, LeBron James’ digital platform. As she watches outlets covering the uncertain future of sports this year, she can’t help but notice one league rarely, if ever, gets mentioned.

“You hear about the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS, college sports and everything but you never hear anything about the WNBA,” Ogwumike said. “This is the time when WNBA players usually lock in and start training for the season. The draft is in April and the season starts in May. Now we don’t know what’s going to happen. The WNBA players are looking at each other wondering what’s going to happen to us? The Olympics happen in the middle of our season. Is that still going to happen? Is the NBA season going to happen? Is our season going to happen? We’re all in a state of confusion.”

The WNBA faces potential health and logistical roadblocks this season, which is scheduled to open with training camp on April 26 and games on May 15. The Sparks, like most WNBA teams, travel commercial instead of charter and practice at a community college or other available gyms when necessary. Many WNBA teams play in the same arena as an NBA team, which could be a problem if the NBA season resumes in late spring and continues through summer.

Chiney Ogwumike works with Sparks player development coach Dash Lovell during a training session March 9, 2020.
Chiney Ogwumike works with Sparks player development coach Dash Lovell during a training session March 9.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“I think for us to have a season will require some creativity,” Ogwumike said. “We understand the economic realities of our league and chartering flights is not sustainable for what we independently generate. But if the NBA deems it a worthy investment to have a season and minimize risk, hopefully we can have that conversation. Our risk is simply higher because our exposure is higher. If the season gets pushed back that affects dates available at the arenas we play in, so it’s going to take some creativity. If the NBA returns at the same time the WNBA season starts maybe we could have some doubleheaders. That’s a creative solution that could also get more eyeballs on our league.”

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Ogwumike isn’t worried about basketball at the moment. As she reads through story after story of families in need of help during this pandemic, she hopes other athletes will use their platforms for good now and after this crisis.

“I think this is a good reminder for athletes that you won’t play forever and once you’re done playing, it’s gone,” she said. “What are we doing to help each other? How are we using our platforms for positivity and change? Whenever we do start playing again, how are we going to be better for this experience?”

Chiney Ogwumike eats a snack before recording her podcast on March 9, 2020.
Chiney Ogwumike eats a snack before recording her podcast on March 9.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)


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